NYHealth submitted the following public comments in support of a proposed USDA rule that would expand eligibility for the Community Eligibility Provision, which helps ensure more students have access to nutritious meals in school. The proposed expansion will allow an additional 925 New York schools to participate in the program:
May 8, 2023
School Meals Policy Division
Food and Nutrition Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
P.O. Box 9233
Reston, VA 20195
Re: Proposed Rule on Child Nutrition Programs: Community Eligibility Provision—Increasing Options for Schools
Dear School Meals Policy Division:
The New York Health Foundation (NYHealth) appreciates the opportunity to respond to USDA’s Proposed Rule on Child Nutrition Programs: Community Eligibility Provision — Increasing Options for Schools. NYHealth is a private foundation that works to improve the health of all New Yorkers, especially people of color and others who have been historically marginalized.
NYHealth has a long-standing commitment to improve both access to and quality of school meals, with a focus on expanding free, healthy school meals for all. We strongly support the proposed rule, which would help make progress toward that goal.
Expanding access to school meals is of critical importance in New York. Based on a 1,507-person statewide Survey of Food and Health that NYHealth conducted in 2021, we know that approximately half of all food-insecure households with children have children who had gone hungry that calendar year. Three of every four such households cannot afford to feed their children a balanced meal, and more than 80% rely on low-cost foods.
Nationally and in New York, the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) has helped ensure all students in eligible schools have access to nutritious meals they need to fully develop. CEP expands school meal participation, reduces stigma, lessens administrative burdens, and streamlines food service operations. CEP benefits students, families, and school districts. Moreover, CEP has been demonstrated to reduce household food insecurity and combat childhood hunger.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, all schools saw the value of offering free meals to all students—reducing student hunger, supporting household finances, improving student behavior and academic achievement, and easing administration and operations. Since the elimination of pandemic-era expansions and a return to a tiered-eligibility system, families, students, and schools have struggled; many districts have reported a rise in school meal debt.
USDA’s proposed rule lowering CEP’s eligibility threshold to 25% from 40% Individual Student Percentage (ISP) will benefit schools and communities, giving 9 million more students access to free school meals and expanding operational efficiencies for 20,000 more schools nationally. For a student to qualify for ISP, their family of four can only earn up to $51,000 a year, leaving out families whose incomes are above the federal poverty line but below a livable wage. In New York State, the expanded eligibility will allow an additional 925 schools to participate.
Even with the proposed expansion, CEP participation will remain financially infeasible for eligible schools because the reimbursement rate calculated using the current 1.6 multiplier is inadequate. Districts spend more than they are reimbursed to make school meals. Lowering the ISP threshold is a critical first step in strengthening CEP, but the Department should consider additional measures, including an increased multiplier, to make it more financially viable for schools.
In the past year, states have enacted legislation to ensure all students have access to healthy school meals. California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico passed policies to aid schools in offering free meals to all students. New York State’s 2023–2024 budget provides $134.6 million for free school meals, which will cover only 300 additional schools. State funding will help schools with lower ISPs to adopt CEP, but in many cases will not be adequate to fully fund school meals programs. To better assist states that have expanded school meals, USDA should approve waivers from states to run CEP statewide and consider creating statewide CEP demonstration projects to assess the approach.
Lastly, we urge USDA to give states the option to put the 25% threshold into effect even if the new rule is finalized after the June 30th election deadline. Doing so will allow states and schools to benefit from the update in the upcoming school year.
We thank USDA for this opportunity to comment on this proposed rule and for its continued work to increase school participation in CEP, enabling children to have access to healthy school meals. We encourage USDA to explore all options to make CEP financially possible for all eligible schools.
David Sandman, Ph.D.
President and CEO
New York Health Foundation
 New York Health Foundation. Food insecurity in families with children. October 2022. https://nyhealthfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/food-insecurity-in-families-with-children.pdf. Accessed February 2023.
 Bylander, A., FitzSimons, C., and O’Connor, G. (2022) Large School District Report Operating School Nutrition Programs During the Pandemic. Food Research and Action Center. https://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/large-school-district-report-2022.pdf.
 Fox MK, Gearen E. Mathematica Policy Research (2019). “School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study: Summary of Findings. United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.